When you’re a student being assigned one classic after another to read, it can sometimes be difficult to understand what’s supposed to be great about all these old books. They often feature old-fashioned, outdated language and after hundreds of pages, nothing of note seems to be happening.
In truth, the definition of a “classic” is extremely subjective. There are several books that have generally been agreed to be classic works of literature. But at the end of the day, it is up to each reader to decide for themselves what makes a book a classic.
As an English major and student of many literature courses before that, I too have read classics that bored me to tears. But I have also found several diamonds in the rough. Even better, since these books are in the public domain, there are tons of places where you can read them for free online.
In all of my years of reading books older than my great-grandparents, here are a few that I believe to be very deserving of the title of “classic”.
1) Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
I first read Frankenstein as a freshman in college. I know it can be a drag reading books for a class rather than for your own pleasure, but I was very grateful to have a great teacher to guide me through the labyrinth of this iconic horror classic. Frankenstein is a multilayered story that has a lot of interesting things to say about morality and what it really means to be a monster.
Places to read it for free online: Project Gutenberg, American Literature, Google Books, Internet Archive, Page By Page Books, Literature.org, Standard eBooks, Planet eBook
2) Little Women by Louise May Alcott
Unlike Frankenstein, Little Women came into my life at a much earlier age. When my mother recommended it to me at the tender age of 9, the cumbersome tome seemed pretty intimidating. But as soon as I cracked the book open, the pages flew by. I was drawn in by the fully realized characters and the close relationships between them. As the youngest of three sisters, I appreciated the love-hate relationship between Jo and Amy in particular. I will also always have a bit of a crush on Laurie.
Places to read it for free online: Project Gutenberg, American Literature, Google Books, Internet Archive, Literature Project, The Literature Network, Full Text Archive
3) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
I actually read this book twice for school—once in a postsecondary literature course I took in high school, and then again in my sophomore year of college. Normally when assigned a book I had read before, I would feel tempted not to reread it. But even though it had only been a year and a half since my first reading, I eagerly dove back in for a second time. Like Little Women, Great Expectations is a novel full of fascinating characters (especially Miss Havisham, forever trapped in time on the day of her ruined wedding). It shows how people are shaped by their perceptions of the world, even if those perceptions are very wrong.
Places to read it for free online: Project Gutenberg, American Literature, Google Books, Internet Archive, Literature Project, PublicBookshelf, The Literature Network, Full Text Archive, Planet eBook, Read Print
4) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
I was first inspired to read Pride and Prejudice around the age of 14 after I read Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. The latter book is something of a reimagining of the former, which made me curious to read the classic version. Even if you hate classics, it’s hard not to be drawn in by Austen’s writing. Unlike a lot of other authors of this time period, Austen made her heroine Elizabeth Bennet a strong and bitingly witty young woman who stood as an intellectual equal to the men in the book. The chemistry between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy is lovely as well
Places to read it for free online: Project Gutenberg, American Literature, Google Books, Internet Archive, PublicBookshelf, Full Text Archive, Planet eBook, Read Print, JaneAusten.org
5) The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This was another book I read for school when I was a high school freshman. That was a crazy time in my life—I was taking several advanced classes with plenty of homework, serving as president of the Women’s Choir, acting in my high school play, and stage managing a community production. So when I was assigned to read The Great Gatsby, I ended up having to read the whole book in one night. Luckily, I enjoyed the book immensely. Fitzgerald created such a gorgeous, exciting atmosphere with Gatsby’s parties. The novel also shows that characters don’t have to be likable to be engaging—they just have to be interesting.
Places to read it for free online: Project Gutenberg, American Literature, Google Books, Internet Archive, Planet eBook, Read Print
6) A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
I know there might be some groans at the thought of reading Shakespeare, and I will admit that some of his plays (particularly the historical ones) can be tough to get through. But A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays and a highly entertaining one. It’s got everything: romance, whimsical fairies, and plenty of humor. Puck is also one of my favorite characters—not just in Shakespeare, but in all of literature.
Places to read it for free online: Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive, Google Books, Standard eBooks, Literature Project, The Literature Network, OpenSourceShakespeare, Shakespeare.MIT.edu, Shakespeare.Foldger.ed
7) Paradise Lost by John Milton
The idea of reading endless pages of blank verse from the 17th century may elicit even more groans than having to read Shakespeare—at least plays are short. I know that’s how I felt when I was assigned to read Paradise Lost in my sophomore year of college. But I ended up absolutely adoring it. Characters from old Bible stories come to life in a way that I had never seen before. Satan is slick, charismatic, and—most surprisingly—deeply engaging. Instead of symbols, Adam and Eve become real people with distinct personalities.
Places to read it for free online: Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive, Literature Project, The Literature Network, Standard eBooks, The John Milton Reading Room, ParadiseLost.org
Author’s Bio: Jillian Karger was born in Ohio but has lived in and around New York City for over a decade. Since graduating from NYU in 2009, Jill has had a long string of jobs doing things like scouting books to be adapted for film and researching trivia questions for “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”.
She has done freelance writing as well for sites like Cracked.com, and had her Twitter jokes featured on BuzzFeed and funnyordie.com. Jill has also self-published two novels on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Jillian-Karger/e/B07B894DNW).
Follow her blog posts about books and writing advice, read books and publish them for free at: https://www.fictionate.me.